It’s deja vu, all over again.
On Monday, Alabama lawmakers are expected to return to Montgomery to find a late-hour solution to a hole in the coming year’s budget — a special legislative session like the one that ended last year’s budget crisis.
They need to find tens of millions of dollars to shore up Medicaid, the state-and-federal health care program that Alabama has struggled to fund, on and off, for decades.
The proposed solution: a statewide lottery, something voters rejected in 1999 and lawmakers have debated ever since.
For those who watch Alabama politics, the coming special session may seem like a sort of greatest-hits album, full of tunes you’ve heard before. But there are a few new twists that could make the action Monday a little different.
No one really knows what’s on the table. If the goal of the session is to save Medicaid in 2017, a lottery alone isn’t likely to do it. Setting up a lottery would take time, so a fix for this budget year would likely have to include some other money source – the BP oil spill settlement, a gas tax, or something similar – to tide the budget over until a lottery is up and running.
It’s not clear what that second proposal will be.
Gov. Robert Bentley has announced that the Legislature will meet Monday, and both Houses are set to convene at 4 p.m., but the governor has yet to release the “call,” the official document that outlines which bills he hopes to pass in the special session.
“The call is not ready today, it will be released on Monday,” Bentley spokeswoman Yasamie August said in a Friday email to The Star.
There will be more than one lottery bill. Even pro-lottery lawmakers have differing views on where proceeds from a lottery would go, and multiple lottery proposals could weaken the chance of passage for any one bill. But even Bentley’s allies in the Legislature may try to go their own way.
Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, has agreed to carry Bentley’s bill – a $225 million lottery, with proceeds going to the General Fund – in the Senate. But McClendon said he’s also bringing his own bill, which would include electronic lottery machines in four counties – Greene, Jefferson, Macon and Mobile – with a bond issue to pay for Medicaid in the coming year.
Democrats have their own proposals. House Minority Leader Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, said he’ll bring a lottery-only bill that would set aside lottery proceeds for education. Another Ford bill would include casino gambling as well.
McClendon doesn’t think the multiple proposals will weaken the chances of passing one amendment. It’ll all be hashed out in the Senate’s Tourism Committee, which will send a single bill to the full Legislature, he says.
“They’ll come up with a favorite, or they’ll combine them,” McClendon said.
It’s not 1999 anymore. The last time a lottery bill reached Alabama voters, religious activists around the state mobilized, holding rallies across the state and defeating the amendment by an 8-point margin at the polls.
That may be harder this time around.
“We’re trying to stop this in the Legislature,” said Joe Godfrey, director of the Alabama Citizens Action Program, a group that opposes the expansion of gambling, including the lottery. “We can reach 140 people, but we don’t have a way to reach a million Alabamians with our message.”
Reaching a million Alabamians, or more, wasn’t a problem for social conservatives in the 1990s, but Godfrey says the movement has lost some of its allies in the business community, and churches don’t have as much money to spend on an anti-lottery campaign, largely because giving never fully recovered from the recession.
Perhaps in response to a shift in the state’s mood, Godfrey is focusing less on the moral arguments against gambling and more on the lottery’s perceived failings as a budget fix. The revenue from a lottery won’t grow, he said, and the state will get only about a third of the money from the purchase of a lottery ticket.
“It doesn’t make good economic sense,” he said.
The Poarch Creek compact may not be dead. Lawmakers have come to see Alabama’s gambling limits as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who already operate casinos on their own land. There’s been talk for years of a compact with the Poarch Creeks, allowing them to offer more types of gambling in exchange for an annual fee or a cut of the proceeds. Critics worry that under federal gaming regulations, a lottery could open the door to Creek expansion without a compact.
Ford, the Democratic House member, says one of his proposed lottery bills would include the power to negotiate a compact with the Creeks, ideally giving the state access to immediate money to help Medicaid.
“The only way we’re going to save Medicaid is through a compact,” he said.
Attempts to reach Poarch Creek officials for comment were unsuccessful.
Budget cliffhanger? Maybe not. High-stakes budget deadlines have become the new normal in Alabama politics. In 2012, voters went to the polls less than a month before the end of the budget year to approve a plan to borrow $437 million to shore up the General Fund. When that money ran out in 2015, lawmakers held two special sessions to patch the budget hole, finding a solution less than two weeks before the fiscal year began.
This time, Aug. 24 is the drop-dead date, supposedly. If lawmakers can’t pass a lottery bill by then, it will be too late to get the bill on the November ballot.
But that may not be as hard a deadline as it seems. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1, so the state will be well into the 2017 budget already when — or if — voters decide on a lottery in November. And if the Legislature doesn’t beat the August deadline, they could set up a special election just for the lottery.
McClendon, the lottery supporter, believes something will have to be done to shore up Medicaid sooner rather than later. Hundreds of thousands of kids, he said, get their medical care through the program.
“There are poor kids who cannot afford medical care through no fault of their own,” he said. “We have to do something.”